Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Last House On the Left (1972)

31 Days of Horror: Day 6
I didn't read up much on The Last House On the Left.  That happens sometimes; I'll see a movie and decide to watch it on whim.  I was looking Wes Craven up on IMDb when I noticed that this was his first professional work as a director.  I like some of Craven's work, so that got me curious.  Then I learned that the film was officially rated X by the MPAA, which is kind of intriguing; even better, Wes Craven re-cut the film a few times and submitted it back the the MPAA, but they wouldn't give it a R --- so he effectively forged a R-rating approval and distributed the film anyway.  That is some ballsy stuff, right there.  Even if it's an urban legend, it's a great urban legend.  But what could possibly make this film so controversial?

The Last House On the Left begins with Mari (Sandra Peabody), on her seventeenth birthday, explaining her party plans for the night to her parents.  She's going into the big city for a concert with her friend, Phyllis (Lucy Grantham).  Her parents (Richard Towers and Cynthia Carr) don't like it --- the city can be dangerous, Phyllis is a bad influence, and Mari won't wear a bra --- but she's their little girl growing up, so they let her go. 
"Bad influence?  I'll drink to that!"
Meanwhile, there has been a prison break in the area and a group of notorious molesters/murderers/psychopaths are on the loose.  Krug (David Hess) is the ringleader, but he has a willing accomplice in the knife-happy Weasel (Fred J. Lincoln, who would go on to direct Bone Appetit: A Shemale Seduction) and a batshit-crazy audience in his girlfriend, (Jeramie Rain).  The odd man out in the group was Junior (Marc Sheffler), Krug's son; Krug keeps him obedient by controlling his heroin habit and the rest of the group treats him like a toadie. 
I didn't know Robin Gibb was a felon!
When the girls arrive in the city, they start looking around for someone who looks like they would sell the girls some primo weed.  They meet Junior, who tricks them into coming up to the group's apartment.
I guess I can understand why they thought he would have the good stuff
Things go downhill quickly from there for the girls.  While Krug and co. spend the evening raping the living hell out of Phyllis, Mari's parents are at home, setting up a small surprise birthday party for when their daughter gets home.
To add to the tragedy, nobody showed up to the party
Krug decides the gang should get out of the city, what with being wanted felons and all, so they throw the girls into the trunk and head into the suburbs.  When they reach the middle of nowhere, their car breaks down, the group abandons it and heads into the woods for more "fun" with Phyllis and Mari.  But when they take the girls out, Mari and Phyllis realize that they are literally across the street from Mari's house!  They are so close to safety, and yet so far!  Of course, what are the odds that this group of psychopaths will spend the night in the woods, when there is a perfectly nice (last) house (on the left)?
About as good as the chances this scene won't lead to a cut-away shot?

The acting in The Last House On the Left is all over the place.  Sandra Peabody and Lucy Grantham were kind of annoying at the beginning of the film, but they both did a good job when their characters were miserable and abused.
Ironically, the less you wanted to watch, the better the acting got
Mari's parents, played by Richard Towers and Cynthia Carr, also started out as cheesy and one note, but their acting also got noticeably better as the plot got grimmer.  As for the villains, Jeramie Rain was particularly wretched; I get it, you're playing a psychopathic bitch, but that's not the same thing as a comic book villain.  Marc Sheffler wasn't much better, alternating his performance between playing a guy that was just in with the wrong crowd and someone with a mental disability.  Fred J. Lincoln was believably sleazy, but what struck me most was how much he looked like the love child of Mike Dirnt and Michael Imperioli.  David Hess was definitely the most impressive actor in the movie.  He was everything his revolting part required.  He was menacing, physical, imposing, and disturbing.  I'm a little surprised he didn't have more of a career in horror movies (or movies in general, I suppose).
"What?  A part in Swamp Thing doesn't impress you?!?"
The rest of the cast is pretty terrible.  The only noteworthy actor in the bunch is a young Martin Kove, who played one of the Keystone Cops in the movie, but being "noteworthy" doesn't keep him from being awful.

The Last House On the Left was the first film written or directed by Wes Craven. Despite the obviously low budget and exploitative nature of the story, he did a pretty good job.  The violence shown on the screen was pretty graphic, especially for 1972, but the most heinous acts (rapesploitation) were thankfully implied and not explicitly shown.  Still, the movie definitely has a brutal feel to it.  I thought Craven did a good job developing Krug as a villain and I definitely liked the development of the parents throughout the movie.  This isn't a fun movie to watch, but it feels plausible enough to make it kind of terrifying.
"This one says 'Krug.'  Which victim is mine?"
I have to hand it to Craven, setting the most horrifying moments in the film so close to Mari's home was a genius choice.  Having safety (or the illusion of it) so close and being able to reach it was a great plot device.  Craven also did a good job with the last act of the movie, where the parents decide to take action against the killers.  There were a few scenes where each parent went through their house, looking for the proper tools to do what needed to be done, and I thought it was surprisingly interesting to watch them try to weaponize their possessions.
Some possessions were easier than others

As good and scary and disturbing as parts of The Last House On the Left are, you would think that this would be a true horror classic.  It is not.  While the horrific parts are very well-made, there is the rest of the movie to contend with. 
"That's where I come in!  Hyuk-yuck!"
For some incomprehensible reason, there is a comedic subplot in this movie.  I'm not talking about some sort of dark, twisted humor, either.  I'm talking 1970s sitcom humor.  And not even the good ones --- these characters were probably taken from the unused scripts for Co-Ed Fever.  The hijinks in these scenes would have only been godawful if they had been in a comedy, but when you sprinkle them throughout a rape/murder/revenge plot, they become downright offensive. 

Well, maybe it's just me.  Here's the gist of what happens: the police are at Mari's house, trying to convince her parents that the fact that she didn't come home that night did not imply something bad had happened to her.  They're wrong, of course, but it sounds like the sort of thing you tell the parent of a missing child.  The cops leave the house and notice a strange car on the side of the road, just past Mari's house.  They consider checking it out (running the plates, looking for the owners, etc.) but decide that it would be a waste of time, because they're on the lookout for Krug and his gang.  ***face palm***  After a while, a description of the car Krug was last seen in is sent out over police radio, the cops remember the abandoned automobile (D'OH!), and try to hurry there.  That's when their car runs out of gas, because the deputy forgot to fill 'er up.  (WAH-WAH)  The two then radio other local police with directions to the car try to hitchhike to Mari's house.  But nobody will give them a ride because they're the pigs/fuzz/local constabulary (CANNED LAUGHTER), and when they eventually find a ride, it is with a woman who makes them ride on her car's hood because her chickens are taking up the rest of the vehicle.  Wackiness abounds!  And you know what's happening the entire time this is going on?  Brutal rape and murder.  Hilarious.
"Wouldn't it be funny if competence is all that stood in the way of multiple homicides?"

In all fairness, the police subplot is not the only instance where The Last House On the Left had awful and drastic shifts in tone.  The (hideous) soundtrack was clearly set up to contrast with whatever was happening on screen.  The casual dialogue between any of the characters in scenes that were not directly related to murderdeathkilling was stupid and painful to hear.  But those, they were bad.  Even when you consider the offensive unevenness of this script, The Last House On the Left is still a pretty solid scary movie.  I don't plan on watching this again, but it definitely gets credit for making me squirm in my seat.

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